I've heard "Hell Drivers" described as a social drama, a snapshot of 1950s life but if like me you know your westerns you will spot a familiar storyline. Here we have a story of a former convict wanting to go straight and finds work driving a truck but not only does his past come back to cause issues but he finds himself working for a corrupt company which may force him to break his promise to himself. On top of that this drama has a romantic subplot as well as a family relationship subplot all of which would not be out of place if this was a western except we are talking Britain in the 1950s. Now that may not sound that great but trust me "Hell Drivers" is a fantastic movie; tense, exciting, dramatic and featuring not only great performances from its leads Stanley Baker and Patrick McGoohan but equally good performances from a supporting cast which includes Sean Connery, Sid James, Herbert Lom and Peggy Cummins.
Tom Yately (Stanley Baker - The Good Die Young) shows up at Hawlett trucking looking for work, unwilling to go into his past he gets work driving one of the trucks where rules are broken as are speed limits to do as many runs as possible in a day transporting grit from one place to another. But he soon finds himself at loggerheads with top dog driver Red (Patrick McGoohan - The Phantom) who manages to do 18 runs a day with none of the other drivers daring to cross him. Determined to beat Red he finds himself being ganged up on by the other drivers when he refuses to get into a fight and whilst discovering there is some dodgy dealings going on also discovers that accidents happen to those who don't play ball with either Red or the big boss.
So for me "Hell Drivers" has that feel of someone taking a standard idea from a western and transposing it to Britain and the setting of a haulage company where we have Tom being the ex-con trying to go straight but finds himself being pushed about by a gang of drivers. Rather than being corny it works and "Hell Drivers" is a tense, satisfying movie because whilst the basic plot elements feel familiar they have been cleverly combined to this different setting. We have the expected tension of Tom being pushed and the mystery over his past as to why he did time but we also have the cockiness of Red and his gang of drivers who decide to teach him a lesson especially when he becomes a threat. Throw in a romantic subplot as well and it makes the movie complete with barely a dull moment.
Part of the reason why it isn't dull is because it is full of fantastic action as we watch the drivers recklessly race along roads. Now for some it may be a bit corny, we have sped up footage of these trucks racing along roads and some unbelievable edits when it comes to near misses but whilst that makes it dated it is still exciting. Watching Tom speed down a one vehicle wide country road and accelerating around blind corners is thrilling as is watching one truck overtake another up the inside with one set of wheels riding a grass verge. It has that element of danger which surprisingly gets you to the edge of your seats and whilst we also get fights it is the action in the vehicles which is where it works.
A big reason for why "Hell Riders" is still exciting is thanks to some brilliant performances with both Stanley Baker as Tom and Patrick McGoohan as Red making both their characters believable. You get a real sense that Tom does not want any trouble and has to control his natural urge to fight when Red tries to intimidate him whilst McGoohan makes Red cocky and dangerous, a dirty fighter and bully. These two performances are so full on that you forget that you are watching Baker and McGoohan act. Plus there are numerous recognizable faces in the supporting cast which includes Sean Connery, Sid James, Herbert Lom, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, Jill Ireland and the eye catching Peggy Cummins.
What this all boils down to is that "Hell Drivers" is a fantastic British movie which takes a familiar western storyline but transposes it to Britain and a haulage company and in doing so upping the tension, action and drama. With a cast of recognizable faces it is the performances from Stanley Baker and Patrick McGoohan which really makes it come to life.